Is Alcohol a Drug?

And what is the best way of modifying young people’s drinking habits?

A few weeks ago I visited a local secondary school to take part in a debate around the theme of alcohol and young people. As a starting point a casualty consultant gave an interesting talk about the horrors of drinking and used a number of case studies to illustrate his talk. This was followed by a local Police constable who gave a more legalistic presentation. In response to both these talks, some of the young people, when asked why people drank to excess, replied that it was due to boredom. They basically felt people had nothing to do.

The suggestion that boredom is one of the main motivating forces of young people’s drinking is interesting because it perhaps suggests that merely using ‘scare tactics’ is not going to change young people’s attitudes. As Shepherd, J. et al. (2002)1 state, “Many young people have sophisticated understandings of health, their behaviour and the wider socio-economic environment in which they live.”

What is apparent is that many young people are aware of the issues, but may make decisions to ignore the risks. For instance, Kathryn Potter (2002 6.3)2 found that although “… there was a high level of knowledge about the consequences of drinking, a very clear gap existed between knowledge and action, with the majority of young people saying that the pull factors towards drinking were stronger than the push factors away from it”. She went on to point out that “The reasons why young people drink are complex and multifarious…” and that “…many young people are making an active and often informed choice to drink”.

What is significant, however, is that for many young people drinking excessively is perceived as the norm in the wider context of leisure activities (see B.M.A. 2003)3. What is apparent is that young people are not risk averse, i.e. they think they know what the risks are and make informed choices. Therefore merely lecturing them about their behaviour will not generally change attitudes.

What we know is that the vast majority of people will drink alcohol at some time during their lives, and I would suspect that a very high percentage of those people who drink will, at some stage, drink to excess. We also know that alcohol can be very destructive and can have devastating effects on both individuals and families.

What I think is strange about the whole debate about drinking is that we so often separate out alcohol consumption from other drugs and in the policy arena governments so often focus on alcohol or illegal drugs but not on a holistic drug policy.

Policy changes also affect resource allocation with money for alcohol education being moved to drug education and vice versa. A recently published report on drugs makes interesting reading as in this analysis the definition of ‘drugs’ includes “…alcohol, tobacco, solvents and a range of over-the-counter and prescription drugs”.4

Further on in the report the authors state that “The law as it stands is not fit for purpose. The principal statute, the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971, is now more than thirty years old. It is unwieldy, inflexible and at some points addresses problems that no longer exist. It fails to embrace alcohol, tobacco and other harmful substances. It is driven more by ‘moral panic’ than by a practical desire to reduce harm” (p. 15).

The report argues that ‘moral panic’ and the emphasis on the criminalising of behaviour are perhaps not the best strategy. The authors advocate a policy of harm reduction, and go onto say that “…in skewing the implementation of policy in the direction of the criminal justice system, current policy neglects other approaches: those centred on individual health, public health, families, education, housing, social care and so forth.

What we have is a system centred on crime and the criminal justice system. What we should have is a more holistic system, one that explicitly acknowledges that any approach that has total prohibition as its principal objective is bound to fail”. Amongst a number of interesting recommendations they are calling for a focus on education that targets primary rather than secondary school pupils; treatment facilities that allow easier access for non offenders; specialised drug courts, and call to move the government department responsible for drugs away from the Home Office to the Department of Communities and Local Government.

Sadly I fear that this report may just be one of many interesting policy documents that will merely gather dust on a minister’s shelf rather than spark of a much needed debate, because, although I accept their analysis that we should move away from a policy driven by ‘moral panic’, I would also suggest that we do have a serious problem with both illegal drugs and alcohol. As a UNICEF report shows the percentage of students age 11, 13 and 15 who report having been drunk two or more times is fewer than 15% in the majority of OECD countries, whereas “In the Netherlands, the figure rises to over a quarter and in the UK to almost a third”.5

Merely lecturing young people about the evils of drugs and alcohol when they see their own parents drinking is not going to change behaviour. Education, dialogue and a broader based strategy that is not merely oriented to criminalising behaviour would be a good start.

1 Shepherd J, Garcia J, Oliver S, Harden A, Rees R, Brunton G, Oakley A (2002) Barriers to, and facilitators of the health of young people: A systematic review of evidence on young people’s views and on interventions in mental health, physical activity and healthy eating. London: EPPI-Centre, Social Science Research Unit.

2 Potter, K., Save the Children (2002) Consultation with Children and Young People on the Scottish Executive’s Plan for Action on Alcohol Misuse’ The Scottish Executive Central Research Unit
Edinburgh: Stationery Office

3 British Medical Association (2003) Adolescent Health (accessed 13/3/2007)

4 RSA (2007) Drugs – facing facts The report of the RSA Commission on Illegal Drugs,
Communities and Public Policy (accessed 15/3/2007)

5 UNICEF (2007), Child poverty in perspective: An overview of child well-being in rich countries,
Innocenti Report Card 7, UNICEF Innocenti Research Centre, Florence. (accessed 15/3/2007)

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